The second Jennifer Bates walked away from the Amazon warehouse where she worked, and the clock started ticking.
She arrived at the cafeteria in exactly 30 minutes and then returned to lunch time. This means going through a warehouse the size of 14 football fields, which will waste precious time. She avoids bringing food home because it takes more time to heat the food in the microwave. Instead, she chose a cold sandwich for $4 (about 300 rupees) from the vending machine and rushed back to her job.
If she did, she would be lucky. If she doesn’t do this, Amazon may cut wages, or worse, fire her.
It was this pressure that prompted some Amazon employees to organize the company’s largest union promotion since its establishment in 1995. This happened in the most unlikely place: Bessemer, Alabama, where the law does not approve of unions.
The stakes are high. If the organizer succeeds in Bessemer, it will set off a chain reaction across Amazon nationwide, raising thousands of workers and demanding better working conditions. However, they are facing an uphill struggle with the country’s second largest employer because the country’s union organizations in its warehouses and Whole Foods grocery store have been crushed.
Amazon’s attempt to postpone the vote on Bessemer failed. The company also requires on-site voting, which organizers believe is unsafe during the pandemic. The postal voting started this week and lasted until the end of March. Of the 6,000 employees, the majority must vote for it.
During the pandemic, Amazon, whose profits and revenues have soared, has been working hard to campaign to persuade workers that unions will only draw money from their salaries with little gain. Spokesperson Rachael Lighty said the company has provided them with what the union wants: benefits, career development and salary, starting at US$15 (approximately Rs 1,090) per hour. She added that the organizer does not represent the views of most Amazon employees.
Bates can spend $15.30 (about 1100 rupees) an hour to ship the boxes of deodorant, clothing and countless other items to Amazon shoppers. The 48-year-old lady started working in May and stood up during most of her 10-hour shift. Bates said that in addition to lunch, the trip to the bathroom is closely monitored. Drinking water or picking up fresh work gloves are also monitored. Amazon denies this claim, saying it provides two 30-minute breaks in each shift and provides extra time to go to the toilet or fetch water.
Fed up, Bates and a group of workers approached the retail, wholesale and department store unions last summer. She hopes that the union (which also represents the workers in the poultry factory in Alabama) will demand more rest time to prevent Amazon from firing workers for secular reasons and demand higher wages.
Bates said: “When we have no one, they will become a voice.”
But according to Sylvia Allegretto, economist and co-chair of the Center for Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley, “History tells us not to be optimistic.”
The last time Amazon workers voted whether to form a union was in 2014, and it was much smaller: 30 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware eventually rejected the union. Amazon currently has nearly 1.3 million employees worldwide.
The same anti-union efforts took place in Republican-controlled Alabama, which is generally not friendly to organized labor. Alabama is one of 27 “right to work states” where workers do not have to pay dues to the union that represents them. In fact, the state is home to the world’s only unconsolidated Mercedes-Benz plant.
Associate Professor Michael Innis Jimenez of the University of Alabama said that the Bessemer warehouse’s union impulse has come to this point, and this is probably due to the organizers. Companies often treat union organizers as non-discussors who don’t know what workers want. But the retail union has offices near Birmingham, and many of the organizers are black, just like the workers in the Bessemer warehouse.
“I think it really helps a lot,” Innis-Jiménez said. “They are not regarded as outsiders.”
Over 70% of Bessemer’s population is black. According to the Associated Press’s analysis of census data, the retail union estimates that as many as 85% of black workers are far higher than 22% of warehouse workers nationwide.
Stuart Appelbaum, chairman of the Union of Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores, said that the Union’s success in Bessemer was partly due to the pandemic. Workers felt that their employers had betrayed them and that they did not take sufficient measures to protect them from the virus. . The Black Living Issues Movement has inspired people to demand respect and dignity. Appelbaum said the union has received news from Amazon warehouse workers across the country.
He said: “They also want to make a sound in the workplace.”
Representatives of the retail, wholesale and department store unions held signs outside the entrance of the Bessemer warehouse most of the time and wore neon vests, although due to the pandemic, many union activities were conducted online or over the phone. At the end of the most recent workday, some Amazon employees who had left the factory rolled down the windows and chatted with the organizer; others hurried past without admitting it.
Some workers in the poultry factory provided help. These include union representative Michael Foster, who works on a poultry farm in northern Alabama but has been in the town for more than a month to help organize the work.
He said an Amazon employee tried to drive them away and said they had better make sure that they were not on Amazon property.
Foster said: “I let them know that this is not my first rodeo.” He helped the other two poultry factories unite.
Bates said that inside the warehouse, Amazon has been holding daily courses on why workers should vote against the union. Amazon spokesperson Letty said these meetings are a way for employees to get information and ask questions.
Lighty said: “If the union vote is passed, it will affect everyone on the scene, and all employees must understand what this means for them and their daily work at Amazon, which is very important.”
Dawn Hoag said she will vote against unions. The 43-year-old has been working in the warehouse since April and said that Amazon made it clear that its work has strict physical requirements. In addition, she said that she can defend herself and does not need to be a union for her.
Hogg said: “I believe so. I don’t have to.”
Trade unions have recently been established in unusual places. Last month, about 225 Google engineers formed a union, which is rare in the high-paying technology industry. Google has fired outspoken employees, although the company said it was for other reasons.
At Amazon, things are not done well for outspoken employees.
Last year, Amazon fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who led a strike at the New York warehouse in the hope that the company can better protect workers from the coronavirus. Office workers who joined the office during the pandemic and talked about warehouse working conditions were also fired, although Amazon said this was for other reasons. Last spring, an Amazon executive resigned in protest, saying that after the whistleblower remained silent, he could not stand by.
Bates is aware of this risk.
“I know this could happen,” she said of being fired. “But it’s worth it.”
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